An exploration of online assessment in institutions of higher learning

An exploration of online assessment in institutions of higher learning

Chapter And Authors Information

Sithulisiwe Bhebhe

Faculty of Education, University of Eswatini, Eswatini

Cosmas Maphosa

Institute of Distance Education, University of Eswatini, Eswatini
Impact of COVID – 19 on Education


The presence of the pandemic in the world has led most governments to temporarily close educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. Most higher education practitioners have made efforts to stay connected with students through online instruction, hoping that the university doors will open again. Having taught students online during the pandemic follows a need to assess students’ learning online. Assessment is one activity that drives students into learning and it could be done both online and offline. In this chapter, we discuss the importance of assessment to learning, traditional instructor-centered examination, online assessment techniques, and cheating in online student assessment and how to curb the cheating. We conclude by answering the worth of online assessment in higher education.

Keywords: Assessment, online, pandemic, higher education, learning



Most higher education institutions globally had to temporarily close their campuses in response to the World Health Organization restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Ministries of Education and training proposed that university campuses may close but learning must continue. This resulted in institutions resorting to online teaching and learning for instruction to continue during the lockdown (Sahu, 2020). Dignan (2020p1) points out that the presence of COVID-19 in the world has led online learning to be effected “…in a hurry…”  Online teaching and learning has been therefore proposed and has received little attention from universities that offer studies through the traditional face-to-face teaching and learning strategies, but, the lockdown due to the pandemic, COVID-19 has given no option.  The online learning to most institutes in higher education, globally. An effective online instruction entails translating the unique benefits of face-to-face interaction to online activities (Gaytan & McEwen, 2007). In reaction to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic the review and use of online teaching and learning has been strengthened (Nguyen & Pham, 2020). Thus, assessing students’ work has been done online as well.

Assessment is one important component of the teaching and learning process in higher education at both undergraduate and graduate levels (Fisher, 2020). Every student doing any form of study undergoes some form of assessment (Cowan, 2005). The presence of the pandemic, COVID-19 has not changed the value of assessment in student learning, but just that the new normal has seen most of the teaching and learning processes being done online. Using effective assessment techniques is an essential part of online teaching and learning (Gaytan & McEwen, 2007). This chapter explores online assessment in higher education.


Assessment is commonly associated with tests, exams, and evaluations, it is gathering and analysing data that may be used to improve student teaching (Thomas, 2019). Swan, Shen, and Hiltz, (2006 P1) reveal that assessment is a tool for making inferences about the learning and development of students and it is a process of “…defining, selecting, designing, collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and using the information to increase students’ learning and development.” Victoria State government (2020p1) states that assessment “…is an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning.” Assessment entails making instructors’ expectations explicit and public, setting an appropriate standard for learning quality information, gathering, analysing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations as well as using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve learners’ performance. Thomas (2019p1) reveals that,
The measurement of student learning through assessment is important because it provides useful feedback to both teachers and students about the extent to which students are successfully meeting course learning objectives
It is also important that educators establish the purpose of assessment, the criteria being measured, and the intended outcomes before meaningful assessment methods can be achieved (Gaytan 2002). Thus, through assessment, the course instructors can evaluate their teaching by measuring the extent to which students in the classroom are learning the course material (Fisher, 2020).
Assessing students entails asking how much subject matter has been conceptualised to evaluate the attainment of the educational goals and standards of the lessons delivered. Students are assessed to make resolutions about “…grades, placement, advancement, instructional needs, curriculum, and, in some cases, funding” (Edutopia, 2018 p1).
Assessment is a process that permits higher education instructors to measure the knowledge students attained by providing evidence that meaningful teaching and learning has taken place (Fisher, 2015). Assessment influences the teaching and learning methods used by instructors and curriculum planners. Curriculum planners through assessment can design suitable and specific units and lessons if students have to attain the desired goals of the course. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2008) points out that assessment and its associated feedback are essential to student learning. Assessments can help improve education, and not only as a means to rank-order schools and students. Instructors who develop useful assessments, provide corrective instruction and give students second chances to demonstrate success can improve their instruction and help students learn (Guskey, 2003).
While online learning motivates students to a certain extent, online instructors must also be able to engage those students who are phobic technologically. An effective online educator must find ways to demonstrate that student learning has occurred. (Robles & Braathen, 2002). Osuji (2012) reveals that online learning is the use of ICTs to facilitate the entire assessment process, from the designing and delivering of assignments to marking by computers, or human-assisted by digital tools, reporting, storing the results, and making the statistical analysis. Crisp (2010) used the term e-assessment to refer to all the assessment tasks conducted through a computer and the web (Whitelock, 2010).


Universities face huge challenges regarding how to function proficiently and safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Safety in assessing students is one other concern that exists in higher education institutions as institutions resort to online learning (Jimenez, 2020). There are forms of assessments that are appropriate in leading to the betterment in student online learning and these are the quizzes, tests, writing assignments, and other assessments that instructors administer regularly (Guskey, 2003). In most instances assessments are formulated from the instructional objectives, thus, instructors value the results from assessments because they give a picture of how much has been covered. Assessments assist instructors to know how much students know about what they have learnt (The Academies Press, 2001).  There are generally two forms of student assessment that are most normally discussed in teaching and learning these also apply to online learning. These are formative assessment and summative assessment (Eberly Centre, 2020).

Formative assessment involves the evaluation of student learning over time to measure students’ level of achievement to enhance student learning during the learning process. It may include course work or come at the end of a unit.  Formative assessment helps students understand their strengths and weaknesses and to reflect on how they need to improve before they get to summative assessment (Maki, 2002). Generally, it increases progress or lack of it.

Formative assessment of also referred to as assessment for learning, which is meant to diagnose learning problems and improve learning. Menendez, Napa, Moreira, and Zambrano (2019 p 238) state that formative assessment is “a continuous evaluation process that occurs during learning, based on the search and interpretation of evidence about student performance and the scope of students’ different goals, projections or objectives”.

Formative assessment must be meant to build into the improvement of the learning process by identifying the student’s weakness and addressing them for improved learner attainment. Van Driel and Berry (2010) also talk about the importance of feedback in formative assessment. The students require constructive and detailed feedback to assist them to improve in learning. Boud (2000, p158) states that feedback is only deemed important if the students can complete the feedback loop by utilizing the given feedback to improve their work.

A summative assessment is implemented at the end of the course of the study to measure student learning. A summative assessment is done at the end and it completes the learning and reveals the outcomes of the learning process, for example, the end of the year or final examinations (Maki, 2002).

Coyte (2017) points out that there are different methods of assessment that may be summative or formative depending on how the instructor implements them. These are self-assessment and Peer Assessment. Self-assessment in a course is meant to enable students to develop their judgment. In self-assessment students are expected to assess both practice and product of their learning. The student becomes the focal point of the learning process in self-assessment and even though, instructors, want to assess student learning, it is crucial that students participate in the assessment of their learning as well (Fontanillas, Carbonell & Catasús, (2016). There is also Peer assessment were students are expected to evaluate the work of their peers and have their own evaluated by peers. Peer assessment gives students possession of the learning process as they share their learning experiences with their peers (Vickerman, 2009).

Online assessments are an integral part of higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic times. Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas are some of the learning management systems that have been used by higher education institutes for teaching and learning as well as assessments (Tadesse, 2020). It is not enough to have the digital infrastructure for effective online assessment, there should also be solid pedagogical underpinnings online assessment practices (Coyte, 2017).

There is a need to align constructively on the available resources, teaching methods, and the assessment to ensure that goals are met (Eberly Center, 2019). There is also a need to Instil student confidence students, especially those coming into higher education for the first time are scared of new experiences as they need to learn to navigate the geography of their new campus or city, hundreds meet new people, and learning to interact with their university work. Instructors also need to personalise feedback like in Moodle quiz questions often come with a range of feedback options. The instructor may offer feedback for students who get the answer correct, specific tips for students who answer incorrectly in a variety of pre-determined ways, and general feedback for all students (Coyte, 2017).

Mangaroska and Giannakos (2018) point out that there is a need for the instructor to be actively involved in learning analytics to understand and improve learners’ online experiences. Learning analytics is the collecting, processing, and reporting of data generated by students as they interact with their digital learning environments. The instructor also needs to check learners’ online accessibility. Online assessments offer a chance for students to work effectively without considering the distance, disability, or illnesses, though most vulnerable learners are also among those with poor digital skills (United Nations, 2020). Proper execution of online assessments can boost confidence in students at all stages of their course (Coyte, 2017)

Both formative and summative online assessment practices may be well employed during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF (2020) advises instructors to prioritize formative online assessments, though summative assessments are an important part of the student learning. Jimenez (2020) advocates for formative and interim tests that are done throughout the year to guide the instructors on how they should adapt or modify their practice to improve learning during the pandemic. UNICEF (2020) also reveals that there is a need to provide appropriate training and guidance for instructors and support for parents as the transitions in assessment activities of instructors presuppose that instructors already have digital competencies.


The traditional instructor centred assessment is intended to measure lower-level intellectual skills in students. This type of assessment comprises of factual recall and comprehension type of content valuation, while the learner cantered assessment measures the emotional domain and it involves team activities, evaluations of self and peers, reflection through records and portfolios. This type of assessment examines students’ attitudes and character traits (Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence, 2020). The performance assessment measures the psychomotor domain and which encompasses physical movement, coordination, and demonstrations of proficiency in a skill or task. The traditional instructor centred assessment has been practiced in the traditional classroom ad it gives the instructors a chance to monitor student development and promotes learning (Baharom, Khoiry, Hamid, Mutalib & Hamzah, 2015).

The shift from the traditional classroom to an online setting was inevitable during the COVID-19 pandemic as stipulations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocated for social distancing. The change meant that there were supposed to be a deviation in the way an instructor and a student interacts, communicate, learning patterns, as well as in the assessment techniques. There is a need for the instructor needs to be knowledgeable in the course content than for them to develop an effective assessment tool (Xin & Creasy, 2004). In online learning, there is a loss of the face-to-face relationship between an instructor and a student. Instructor to student interaction is vital in the assessment. The traditional classroom portrays the instructor at the front of the room, transmitting information to the students in the form of a lecture and the students taking notes (Spivey & Mcmillan, 2014).

Faize (2014) points out that, teaching online allows the course instructor to have an opportunity to gauge the overall students’ content conceptualisation levels than in a traditional classroom where the instructor asks a question, and only one student is pointed at to answer. This leaves the instructor without the knowledge of how each student in the class understands the concept unless each of them is asked as well. The National Academies Press (2001) reveals that a question asked online, leaves each student with a little option but to respond Online lesson delivery exploits instructional notes, audio, video, and discussion. Draves (2000) states that there is more interaction between and among students and the teacher with online learning than with traditional instruction.


There are several assessment methods that course instructors may utilize when assessing inline. Kearns (2012 p 199) observes that online assessment may take the form of “projects, portfolios, self-assessments, peer evaluations, peer evaluations with feedback, timed tests and quizzes, and asynchronous discussion”.

This shows the varied nature of assessments that course lecturers may employ online. On the issue of the portfolio as an assessment method, Mokhtaria (2015 p 170) argues that portfolio work is a “purposeful, multidimensional process of collecting evidence that illustrates a student’s accomplishments, efforts, and progress over time”. In this method of assessment, the lecturer seeks to gather evidence of the work done by the student. Gathering such evidence on the part of the students will show that the student was actively involved in the learning process. Organizing the evidence in a logical and meaningful work further shows that the student can communicate in academic writing. The importance of the portfolio is also seen in how it teaches students to be life-long learners who can monitor and document their learning process.  Portfolio work, therefore, is a very creative way of assessing students online.

Lecturers may also employ self-assessment methods for online learning.  Self-assessment is described by Brown and Harris (2013 p 368) as a “descriptive and evaluative act carried out by the student concerning his or her work and academic abilities.” It is important to note that self-assessment is a learner-centred approach in which students are actively involved in assessing their work for improved learning. Falchikov (2005) states that self-assessment is important in promoting the high quality of learning as it allows students to reflect on their learning and provides opportunities for the transfer of learning. As students assess their work, they begin to take note of areas of deficiency and improve upon them. Zimmerman and Schunk (2011) argue that self-assessment is linked to self-regulated learning. Through self-regulated learning students generate their feedback to improve learning happening online.

Lecturers may also utilize peer assessment techniques to assess students online. Yang (2010) notes that peer assessment allows students to communicate with their colleagues and reflect on their work as they assess each other’s work and providing feedback for each. Falchikov and Blythman (2001) state that peer assessment results in n peer feedback which improves learning as a student can take note of strengths and weaknesses as identified by peers. Such feedback will be important in identifying areas to improve on.


For assessment to enhance teaching and learning, it needs to be an ongoing process to which all participants are committed. Effective online assessment needs to be in line with online teaching (The National Academies, 2002). Online assessment strategies include having a wide variety of clearly explained assignments regularly and providing meaningful and timely feedback to students regarding the quality of their work. Effective assessment techniques include projects, portfolios, self-assessments, peer evaluations, and weekly assignments with immediate feedback (Rowe, 2004).

Moore (2013) points out that it is not all online courses that are created from the beginning as some courses would have been previously taught face-to-face, but to be operative in an online environment, the assessments that may have been functional in a face-to-face classroom may need to be tweaked or even replaced because the face-to-face and the online teaching and learning environment differ.

One challenge faced in online assessment in cheating. Cheating is easier to do and harder to detect in online assessment. It is not clear whether online students cheat more than face-to-face students, the truth is that it is more difficult to monitor who’s taking a test and how they’re taking it online than it is in a classroom, and what or who the assessee brings to the assessment cannot be seen (Watson & Sottile, 2010).

Students may get assessment answers in advance or look for answers during an assessment and this is cheating (Feeney, 2020). In online assessment it is hard to ensure that all students take the assessment at the same time, meaning that those who take the test earlier can supply answers to those who take the test later.  The earlier students may memorize questions or even take screenshots and send information to those who will write later (Rowe, 2004). This may be countered by having assessment questions drawn from a large pool and each student is given a random selection, but it is hard to grade students fairly when they get different questions since some students will get harder questions than others. Even with a large pool, a different danger is that students may be able to log in as the instructor and read the answer key themselves. When students cannot guess the instructor’s password, they can use “social engineering” methods that have been successfully used to scam even smart people into revealing their passwords (Mitnick, 2002).

In online assessment, students may cheat even if they do an assessment simultaneously and the instructor’s password is adequately protected by using spyware to electronically snitch a look at how other students are answering questions during an assessment or what the instructor is typing on their computer (Rowe, 2004). Spyware is software that secretly sends messages about you to other people. (Mintz, 2002). The other way in which cheating may take place with online assessment is that it may be possible for students to retake an assessment multiple times until they are satisfied with their performance, even if that was not the intention of the instructor (Mitnick, 2002). In other instances, students can break their connection to the server during an assessment, if the server software is not properly designed and then claim they lost power and test answers so that they get an opportunity to start over the test again. This will be a ploy to get extra time to consult collaborators or unauthorized reference materials. In a bid to cheat students may also crash the server after the grading is done but before the grades have been recorded or just change the system clock so the grading server thinks that a new test assessment is before an earlier assessment (Rowe, 2004).

Cheating in online assessment may also occur in cases where confirming that the student is in fact who they say they are. In online learning discussion groups and e-mails among students leads to collaboration and this collaboration may extend to unauthorized collaboration during assessments (Rowe, 2004). A weak student may hire a good student to take their tests or a team of good students, or could arrange consultants to contact for the hard questions during an assessment. Having a student provide their password does not mean that they are the ones answering the questions at a remote site. Oxford Royale Academy (2020) points out that, “Even the brightest students can sometimes find themselves academically underperforming…” so cheating in online assessment may be done by both bright and weak students.


The period during a pandemic every college and university needs to prioritise avoiding unnecessary stress the students. Kim (2020 p3) states that “Timed exams created stress, even if everything else in the test-taking environment is normal and supportive.” This stress leads to cheating in the exam.  Cheating may be reduced by minimising the number of times students have to take the test so that only those students familiar with the material can answer the questions in the time fixed. Having short-answer or essay questions that require students to apply textbook facts to novel scenarios may also reduce cheating by referring to notes and books (Moore, 2013).

Harrison (2020 P2) states that “Students are also less likely to cheat when they are invited to demonstrate learning in ways that are most authentic to them.” One other way of curbing online assessment cheating would be to Shuffle test questions.

Shuffling questions helps reduce the likelihood that two students sitting in adjacent to each other can take the same test together, but, one answering the odd number questions and the other answering the even number questions at different times. There could also be a plagiarism detection software, where students run their essays through a plagiarism detection service such as SafeAssign or TurnItIn to detect cut-and-paste plagiarism (Moore, 2013).

The type of assessment administered also reduces the chances of students cheating in online assessment. Moore (2013p2) points out that, “Frequent low-stakes tests, such as short quizzes or self-check activities” require students to make no more than a few points that may help reduce cheating. Performance assessments, that require students to write, speak, or present are usually done during the formative assessment and students find them harder as there is little room for cheating on these (The National Academies, 2001).  Coordinated assessments require all students doing the same course to take the test at the same time and within the stipulated time, staggering tests increases the likelihood that the first students to take the test can pass on question details to their colleagues, but if the test is taken at the same time cheating is minimized (Johnson, 2020). Proctoring is another way of reducing cheating in the online assessment as it somehow returns it to the same level as a face-to-face class where monitoring is done physically.

According to Lathrop and Foss (2000), an institution should define cheating to the students and encourage honesty. This could be done by developing academic integrity policies, which clearly explain issues of honesty and the consequences. Students may be asked to sign an academic integrity policy where they commit to honesty and integrity when taking an online assessment. Students should be encouraged to adhere to high ethical practices when taking assessments. Students should be expected to bear the consequences of any unethical conduct associated with their online assessment activities.

One of the ways of curbing cheating in online assessment is for the course instructors to desist from relying on the lower-order objective type of assessments such as quizzes and simple multiple-choice tests. Course instructors should make use of higher-order questioning which requires students to apply knowledge.

Michael and Williams (2013) suggest the use of Algorithmic test banks as a way of curbing cheating in online assessment. They say that in quantitative courses the learning management system can be programmed to change questions at each implementation. Students taking the same test maybe be writing completely different test items. The test items, however, will be of the same level of difficulty and assessing the same skills. The changes at implementation make it very difficult for students to collude and cheat.


Online assessment in higher education is a worthy exercise. In terms of safety, it has proved to be safe during the times of COVID-19 pandemic as it reduces contacts between individuals. It is worth doing online assessments as they are worth saving funds for the higher education sector in reducing the usage of paper and decreased fears over the security of transporting examination papers and contracting diseases through the exchange of papers (Khan& Khan, 2018).

Online tests provide added flexibility in terms of timings and location of test conduction as well as at what time feedback is provided to the students. Randomization of exam questions and the possibility of repeating the test several times add to the advantages of online assessments (Betlej, 2013). Among the numerous benefits of e-assessment is, according to Marriott (2009), the provision of immediate feedback for students. Some tests taken inline may provide students with immediate feedback, which is very important in the improvement of their learning.


The Covid-19 pandemic forced many institutions to resort to virtual classes. The implementation of online learning was hastily done. There was no time to adequately prepare lecturers who had never been exposed to electronic learning. While teaching may be done without many challenges, the main problem could have been in conducting the online assessment. Academic integrity in terms of ethical conduct in assessment may be difficult to monitor and enforce in instances where they take an assessment from different locations without monitoring. There are numerous benefits of online assessment but the challenge of curbing dishonest practices is a real one. Assessment is part of the learning process and useful and meaningful assessment is one that takes place in controlled environments and students exercise academic integrity.


The following recommendations are made given the discussion in this chapter;

  1. Course lecturers in higher education institutions should be prepared appropriately for online teaching learning and assessment.
  2. Assessment for learning should be given more emphasis than an assessment of learning.
  3. Course lecturers should be professionally developed to understand and appreciate the role of assessment in the learning process.
  4. Different approaches to assessment should be utilised to provide students with rich online learning experiences.
  5. The possibility of the students cheating in online assessments should be given attention and measures should be put in place to curb academic dishonesty in the assessment.

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